Are Universities Guilty as Charged?


As the sun has set on 2017, are universities really as bad as they’ve been made out to be?

2017 was an annus horribilis for universities. They’ve come in for a lot of flak and this has the sector feeling under fire. I’m all for picking holes in the way that higher education works – it’s my job to think about this – as it allows us to look at ways of making improvements. However, many of the stories that made the news are smoke and mirrors, and deflect the attention away from more important issues (most of which relate to number 6). Here’s a round-up of the main stories from 2017 and why (most of them) are less important than the amount of words wasted on them.

1: Universities are out of touch. 

Not guilty (any more).

2: Degrees aren’t value for money.

Not guilty.

3: University Leaders are on ‘fat cat’ salaries.

Not guilty.

4: Academics have a three-month summer holiday.

Not guilty. (Although I wish we were)

5. Universities point-blank refuse to offer two-year degrees. 

Not guilty.

6. Universities are deeply discriminatory and hot-beds of harassment.


7. Universities Limit Free Speech

Not guilty

The Verdict, Your Honour? Six out of seven cases for the prosecution have been thrown out, with limited grounds for appeal. The one that we’re failing on is certainly partly our fault – we (and pretty much everyone else) have to hold our hands up and do much, much, better. So what is behind these attacks on higher education if much of the accusations are unfounded in practice? No social/political activity smoke is created without fire, and there seem to be concerted statements from politicians, lobbying groups (and their pet newspapers) to sway public opinion. Sometimes the headline or the accusation lasts in the collective memory even if the case is thrown out, and maybe that’ll happen here. What I think is going on is that we’re being primed for future changes – not that there haven’t been a lot in the last few years. But if you unsettle and divide universities, students, and academics, it makes them easier to manipulate. A major review of funding and governance in higher education has been threatened for some time, and the government is desperate to introduce more competition through existing universities varying their fees, and allowing for-profit universities into the market.  In short, they’re tenderizing the meat.

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Free Speech threatened in Higher Education?


‘The problem is, universities are bloody full of snowflakes these days. Wasn’t like that in my time, by jove!’

Sensitive Snowflakes?

There were strident calls from politicians towards the end of the 2017 for universities to maintain free speech, which of course implies that they haven’t been. The ‘problem’, so it goes, is that certain (political) perspectives are being shut down or excluded from campuses by ‘sensitive snowflake’ students.

This snowflake moniker has been applied to Generation Y – the so-called Millennials – those born between about the mid-90s and mid-2000s. The accusation is that ‘the youth of today’ has had it so easy that they feel entitled to everything in return for no effort, and are unwilling to face up to ideas that might challenge or unsettle (i.e. melt) them. This accusation is justified by denigrating student protest movements such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and what’s known as ‘no-platforming’, and by citing the rising numbers of students seeking counselling. I’ll come to the ‘justifications’ in a minute, but it’s first worth looking at the foundations on which Generation Y rests.

There is some weight behind the observation that Millennials could be more vulnerable than previous generations. They leave university with significant volumes of debt, something their predecessors did not. Coupled with this, the stable careers, predictable pensions, mid-sixties retirement age, and affordable house prices enjoyed by the post-war baby boomers are a thing of the past. Generation Y’s future looks far less promising and predictable than it did for their grandparents. Until recently, they’ve been pretty much ignored by politicians, too. If you throw in political issues like populism, rising social inequality, Brexit (something most young voters in the UK polled against) and climate change, it’s pretty hard to get excited about the next seventy years unless you’re already very wealthy.

#RhodesMustFall et al

Rhodes Must Fall was a movement that started in South Africa where students protested against the presence on their campus of a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, the founder of what is now Zimbabwe. The protest spread to other universities in South Africa, and then to the University of Oxford, where Rhodes studied (briefly) and established a scholarship scheme that still runs today. Rhodes Must Fall is an aspect of a growing awareness and activism against white supremacy – different to the outright racism of the KKK – where the political (and legal, and educational etc) system as it stands is oriented around white, male, middle class values and success. This can also be seen from a cultural perspective where university curricula are dominated by European, white, male thinkers. Black – and other minority – opportunities, experiences, perspectives are, they feel being marginalised or ignored. Is this oversensitive snowflake behaviour? I’d disagree – unless you accepted a whitewashed (i.e. clean, benevolent) view of the British Empire, there’s plenty of justification for this. If anything, they’re trying to open up a broader conversation, not close one down.

No Platform

‘No platforming’ refers to instances where students have militated against certain people being able to give lectures at universities. Two of the best-known cases are Milo Yiannopoulos, an ‘alt-right’ anti-feminist, and the feminist academic Germaine Greer. Both sit at pretty different ends of the political spectrum, but students protested that their views on certain topics were offensive and as such should be not be aired. This starts to head into a grey area, as people’s sensitivity to topics varies. In principle, it’s important to hear perspectives that you might disagree with, to understand why people might have different viewpoints to you. It allows you both interrogate yours – and their understanding – and to work through counter-arguments. This is an essential part of being at university and of being academic, constantly reviewing what is thought and known. At the same time, there has to be a measure of quality – any position must be justified by reason and evidence – unsubstantiated vitriol is unwelcome. There is also no place for inciting violence or hate crimes, and there are already laws around that. Within the ground rules, though, universities should be safe spaces for having unsettling conversations. Provided a talk comes with health warnings, and attendance is voluntary, then surely just about anything goes? In practice, there have been few cases of no-platforming, but they’ve made big news where it does happen, and it gets wrapped up in the snowflake stereotype.


There is evidence that Millenials are more likely to seek counselling than previous generations. Is this a sign of weakness? Perhaps not – we live in a time where our awareness of, and attention to, mental health issues is far greater than it has been, and the stigma around seeking help are slowly falling away. There is also more support than there used to be, which is a good thing. The notion that we should ‘man up’ and maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of any diversity creates huge problems, particularly for men who’ve felt they had to live like that, and for many people associated with them. When you also factor in the social, economic, and political conditions that current students find themselves in, with potentially bleak futures and a heavy burden of debt (which many of them protested against), it’s unsurprising that many of them are feeling the pinch. I would.

All in, there’s no real evidence for that Millenials protest against the slightest thing, get blown over by trivialities, or that universities are shutting down freedom of speech. The real irony here is that many of these accusations circulate in media outlets, fanned by groups that themselves are doing their best to shut down conversations by denigrating or omitting alternative perspectives. As they say, if you point the finger at someone else, three fingers are pointing back at you.


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Universities are Sexist, Snobbish, and Racist


Anyone here who’s less deserving of their success than someone else? Almost certainly…

Perhaps the most ‘positive’ development in 2017, through discussions triggered by the Harvey Weinstein and extended revelations, was the explosion of awareness of the ways in which sexual discrimination and harassment are built into our current society. It’s a sad indictment that it requires scandals and disasters to grab people’s attention, but perhaps it was ever thus. Discrimination and harassment often operate invisibly due to the fact that ‘low levels’ of either are seen as ‘normal’, and people in positions of relative power are able manipulate or abuse others and keep their (or their peers’) so-called lapses of judgment quiet. Much of the improved awareness has come about through activism on social media, allowing certain voices and perspectives to be shared and resonate more widely. Of course, less enlightened opinions and online trolling proliferate and resonate, too, but the hashtags and activities around #metoo and #notallmen – as well as the more well-established #BlackLivesMatter and #EverydaySexism – have been very powerful in heightening our collective consciousness of these issues. Many people – particularly those on the receiving end – have been aware of these things for some time, and it’s not before time that the rest of us had our eyes opened further.

Universities are as complicit in this horrible mess as anywhere else. We’re not insulated from societal issues, and higher education provides endless opportunities for this hideousness to play out. It has long been recognised that social inequality often translates into educational inequality, and this creates significant problems around fairness in university access (particularly at ‘elite’ institutions). That the student body is not representative of broader society is a problem of and for education and university admissions. This non-representativeness also creates further problems for those in marginalised or minority groups when they are at university. Feeling unwelcome, out of place – or being made to feel so – in any environment is uncomfortable. It may not always occur in overt, violent acts, but is built in to everyday language and activity. Without many of us realising it, we’re hampering the ability of others to engage fully and do as well as they could. This has knock-on effects for their happiness and attainment, and then for their overall job prospects. Of course they’ll be harassed and discriminated against there, too, in applying for jobs, in the workplace, and this is no less the case if they work at universities.

Much of the harassment and discrimination in universities will operate beneath the surface, and it’s the responsibility of staff and the entire wider student body to out it and deal with it. Firstly, we all – but particularly privileged men – need to take a good look at ourselves, and basically stop being arseholes. Secondly, we need quotas. Demands for gender-balanced representation in senior management are often shouted down as being discriminatory against talent, but this is plain wrong – it unfairly discriminates for certain social groups and against talent. Asking universities to self-regulate on this clearly doesn’t work, as we can see in the ongoing imbalances around gender, race/ethnicity, social class, and disability, in elite university admissions, in the composition of the student and academic body, in pay, and so on. Someone’s going to have to lose out, but some of those should never have been winning in the first place. Grayson Perry puts this very nicely in ‘The Descent of Man’:

‘The outcry against positive discrimination is the wail of someone who is having his privilege taken away. For talented black, female, and working class people to take their just place in the limited seats of power, some…are going to have to give up their seats.’

I suppose the big hope for 2018 and beyond is that the barriers to equal participation in education and work have been dealt a significant blow, and we’re approaching genuine equality and inclusivity faster and faster. Those with an unfair advantage have a vested interest in keeping it that way; their saying that we live in a society where we’ve moved beyond sexism, classism, racism, and ableism (discriminating against those with disabilities) is patently untrue. Pretending that something doesn’t happen, or doesn’t exist, means that you’re not required to deal with it, and everything’s fine. The thing is, it’s fine for them, but not for anyone else.


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Two-year degrees – a no-brainer?


Two year degrees: a case of students having their cake and eating it? Do they even want to?

Lazy academics…

Yet another storm in the higher education teacup towards the end of the 2017 was the accusation that universities and academics were shying away from offering two-year undergrad degrees. Instead of laying on the traditional six semesters in three years (at £9k a year), we should be teaching an additional semester in the summer to allow graduation in two years, and do this for £11K a year in fees. The rejection of these was, it was claimed, simply academics looking to avoid change, maintain their cushy lifestyles, and short-change students.

In principle, two-year degrees look like a no-brainer on two counts:

  • Firstly, it potentially saves students a fair amount, as they’re only studying for two years at a tuition cost of £22K instead of three years at £27K. They also save the third year’s living costs, about £12K, and start earning a year earlier. If they earn £20K in the first year after graduating, this puts them something like 30K (after tax etc) ‘ahead’ of students who study over three years . This, though, assumes that students don’t need the summer to earn money, don’t want that summer holiday, and will get into decently-paid jobs when they graduates. Overall, though, the raw numbers make some sense – the loss of summer earnings could be off-set by the savings and earlier salary.


  • Secondly, there is – on paper – space in the calendar for this. The long summer break harks back to the time when pupils and students were required to muck in (or out) over the harvest, something no longer true for the majority. As I’ve written about recently, the time from the end of teaching in around mid-May to the start of the new year in October is fuller than some people appreciate. You still have six weeks of exams, marking, and finalising results, and you also need to review and re-/write courses, supervise postgraduates, do research, and deal with any undergrads resubmitting assignments/resitting exams in the summer. Oh, and we like going on holiday, too. There’s also a pedagogical argument, that the ‘slowness’ of the academic year allows students more time to reflect on their learning – it’s not about stuffing knowledge in, but establishing rational, evidence-informed ways of looking at the world. Also, students with less sense of, or preparation for, university life benefit from more time to get used to things and then have a better chance of progressing as far as they can.

Not such a no-brainer after all…

So, it’s not as easy as it looks. I’m also not sure about the financial realities of this for universities. Establishing the precise cost of laying on a degree is a dark art in some way. Could the additional semester each year only be delivered at £2K, rather than £4.5K (half the two-semester, £9K annual tuition cost)? Some of costs are overheads such as rent/rates and bills, library access and staff salaries. But staff in general would have to be doing more, and there’s no slack in the system for it. You either employ more academic (and administrative) staff to ensure that the teaching provision is there and ensure that research can still be done, or you take research out of the mix. For most universities, that’s not an option.

The other fly in the ointment is ‘the market’. As I’ve blathered on about elsewhere, the government assumes that (higher) education should be a market, with a range of competing service providers of varying quality and varying prices. This doesn’t really exist in the same way as some other products and services for several reasons, not least of which is that there’s no genuine evidence of a degree from one university being notably inferior/superior to another, and the cost of provision doesn’t vary. Also, there’s little evidence of much demand for two-year degrees (outside a few specialist providers, see below), so there’s not much need to supply them. Students, it seems, prefer a long summer ‘break’ to earn some money, go on holiday, and gain work experience. The exception may be engaged mature students who already have the experience and inclination to motor through more quickly, although mature students virtually vanished when tuition fees went up to £9,000. 

In practice, the consensus on two year degrees seems to be that they’re relatively unfeasible and won’t take off in the foreseeable future. They’ll by and large (still) be in professional subjects like law, and through alternative providers (i.e. specialist, non-research colleges and universities). If anything, the call and kerfuffle from politicians is probably designed to raise the idea of two-year degrees in the interests of those colleges who either already offer them or who are looking to set up in the future. They’re perhaps trying to make it easier for these ‘competitors’, particularly for-profit institutions. Whether these are a good thing depends on the eye of the beholder. The evidence from the US, where this was really opened up, is often not good – many poorly-served, working-class students students who fail to graduate and are overloaded with debt, while the colleges themselves are high and dry from pulling in state funding through student loans.

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Do Academics get a three-month summer break?


Academic life is great – three months of this, every year!

Over the summer, an ex-government minister dropped a bomb into mainstream and social media by stating academics of having a three-month holiday over the summer. This is bunkum, and he has been ridiculed across social media for it. Teaching finishes in early or mid-May, and then there are still exams, marking, and the balancing of marks that takes us until the middle of June. Then, over the summer, you review previous courses, making changes as required, write materials for new courses, do research, and set all of the materials up for the new year. August is usually quiet as people tend to be away on holiday and/or attending academic conferences. It starts to pick up again in September. It should also be pointed out that postgraduate degrees, both Master’s and doctorates, still run over the summer, so there’s supervision required there. Academics get the same holidays as most people on permanent contracts – five weeks. I actually get seven because our university closes for some religious holidays, but have never been able to take them all. So, big fat holiday in the summer? Big fat lie!

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Are university leaders on ‘Fat Cat’ Salaries?


If you want Rolls Royce leadership, you have to pay for it. Supposedly.

The fact that university leaders are paid fairly well bubbled up in the summer and has rumbled on since then, with the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath being the best paid – nigh on half a million pounds a year. She has since lost her job, and there’s a new code of practice for establishing VC pay. Was all this fuss justified?

First off, universities employ hundreds, if not thousands, of staff, have thousands of ‘customers’, and have budgets that run into the billions – the VC is carrying a lot. That that senior leaders elsewhere in the public sector often earn as much or more was pretty much ignored, as was the fact that CEO salaries for comparably-sized businesses in the private sector are often way in excess of this. A comparison is often made with the Prime Minister’s salary (c.150,000), but this a red herring. PMs may have a lot of responsibility, but they get a grace and favour house in Downing Street, and Chequers Court in the Buckinghamshire countryside. They’re ferried around in chauffeur-driven cars, and spend the rest of their lives earning a fortune in memoirs, after-dinner talks, and lucrative part-time engagements. But this is a hot topic, and seems to have grasped the public/media imagination.

What is dodgy here is that VCs often seem to be on the panels that review their pay packages – turkeys and Christmas, right – and that staff across the sector have seen the value of their wages fall. This is due to wages rising slower than inflation, and that a lot of university staff are on short-term and zero-hours contracts. So, fat cat salaries, not really, but there are problems in pay across the sector, so this is more of a fairness and bad taste issue than anything.

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Are university degrees ‘Value for Money’?


All that learning’ll never pay off, you know…

Government policy has, for some time now, been seeking to create an educational market, in both schools and universities. This comes about through trying to prove (through measurement and league tables) that the quality between universities varies, and well-informed punters then choose where to study (or send their children) based on the quality of the course and the likely financial outcomes. Universities, it is hoped, will charge different levels of fees based on this variation of quality/employment opportunities, just like in other markets, like cars, holidays, whatever. They will also look to up their game in relation to their competitors, to attract those punters.

The first problem is that not everyone is equally well-informed or equally able to apply for whichever university they want; this little to do with ‘ability’ and more to do with luck, parental income and education. High status universities are socially selective, and this is not because wealthier people are brighter.

The second problem is that there is no evidence for any real variation in teaching quality, despite what the National Student Survey (NSS) and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) claim to show. They’re not valid or reliable measures of how good a university/course is (or isn’t). That students from ‘better’ universities earn more and dominate the professions is more an issue related to the labour market and the fact that certain employers – lazily – rely on university status (and the social class of applicants) to select their staff. This connects with the third problem, financial outcomes.

Undergraduate degrees across England cost £9,250 a year, regardless of the subject. This is because the government has said that’s the most that universities can charge. Overall, the inputs the the same, it’s the outcomes that vary widely. The cost of running a degree is not cheap – think of the staffing and infrastructure (administration, libraries, labs, classrooms, IT). Also, as I explain here, courses that are cheaper to run (in the Humanities and Social Sciences) subsidise the more expensive ones (Engineering, Medicine), and the probable salaries in those fields don’t correspond with the cost of provision. If you charge variable fees, you potentially exclude people from poorer backgrounds, and that’s an absolute red line.

All of this obscures that current fee levels are the result of poor government policy. Universities can’t charge variable fees, because it looks bad, but also need to cover their costs – if anyone’s guilty, it’s the politicians that created this unholy mess. The fact that some degrees aren’t ‘value for money’  in the rawest sense should almost certainly be addressed through greater state subsidies for degrees across the board rather than excessive loans which are often not repaid. Fees and loans, particularly in their current form, are pretty hard to justify, and we saw a public view on this in the general election where Labour’s commitment to lower/abolish fees seemed to be a vote-swinger. All of this, though, also obscures the fact that cost = salary is a very narrow way to consider the ‘value’ of a degree when the many of the benefits of a degree are social and therefore unquantifiable.

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Are Academics are Out of Touch?

Kyoto Tower at Night

Are universities an ivory tower?

I know the Brexit vote was pre-2017, but it’s obviously an ongoing issue, and it marked a significant event where mainstream understandings of politics and voting were way out of kilter. For universities, staying in the EU is an absolute no brainer – we want to employ staff and recruit students from elsewhere in Europe, to collaborate with colleagues there, and have access to EU funding. The economic numbers for Remainers, also make sense, as it’s cheaper for us to import and export from other EU countries. But we’re in an interesting time, politically. Brexit – and Trump – neither of which many people saw coming, have shown that a lot of people feel left behind, or left out, of the benefits of globalisation. Voting to Leave, for Trump, or for UKIP, is a sign that a lot of people feel that politics in its current form has let them down – they want something different. As a sociologist of education, I see the effects of poverty on  lower educational attainment, and then on the labour market, but I’d not made the connection with voting; the working class Labour, and older and/or wealthier Conservative voter may still be still out there, but it’s less cut and dried.

While we may have been out of touch, there has been a concerted effort to understand what’s going on. The Conversation – a public engagement website written by academics – has a lot of articles on Brexit, for example. Journal articles also started to emerge in 2016, which was pretty impressive given the lead time on publishing. So universities probably are more in touch now, but what we’re still not very good at is communicating with the public. We have a few lobbying groups, the most visible and influential of which is the Russell Group. They represent the ‘top’ universities, but seem to have little interest in anyone else, or in social justice or diversity within their student body. Universities UK represents the whole sector, but their arguments about the value of higher education is largely about economic. It’s an easy argument to put cross, but it’s entirely reductive – where are the social arguments? These are also entirely missing in the Brexit discussion, which drives me mad – it’s fun to be mobile, to share experiences and ideas.  Have universities been divided and conquered, more obsessed by competing with each other than applying a concerted voice?

I feel that universities, particularly in the social sciences, need more academic celebrities – my students this year couldn’t name any when I asked them. Mary Beard is accessible in classics (and kick-arse), Lucy Worsley has done well in History, and Bettany Hughes did this fantastic series on Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, but it’s a rarity that these kinds of things feature on TV.  Then there’s Richard Dawkins, but he’s curmudgeonly and contrary, and not very constructive for religious discussions, but Danny Dorling is good on social inequality. None of them has the visibility of Brian Cox, and neither of the men have the same kind of approachability. We need a Brian – in fact universities need a lot of them, and preferably not so many in the white-male category. We’re getting better, I think, but there’s a long way to go before academics are part of the national conversation outside the broadsheets. We’re in touch, but not not quite connected.

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The Tale of the Disappearing Academics and Death by Poisoned Numbers


Do they even know we’re here?

I’m Irrelevant!

My university doesn’t give a monkey’s about me. I’m one of several hundred employees, and as in any organisation that size, my hopes and dreams, my own trials and tribulations, are essentially irrelevant. The ideal situation is that your personal missions in life overlap with those of your job. If they don’t, and you can’t reconcile the differences, then you’re probably in the wrong business. This of course assumes that you have a choice about what you do and where you work. The sociologist in me also knows that the business you’re in informs what you hope and dream for, but that’s a discussion for another day.

An organisation can’t possibly ‘care’ about you: it’s not an animal/person, even if we – and particularly advertisers and brand managers – like to associate companies, teams, and so on, with personalities. If you have large groups of people arranged around various tasks and responsibilities, with a chain of command, then it can’t be personal. It’s not a family. It’s not a democracy, either, and even if it was, you can’t please everyone all the time. That’s not to say that you can’t have a culture that looks values and fosters collegiality,  decency, positive morale and sound mental health, you can (and should). But at the same time, we’re cogs in a machine – we need maintenance and oil, but we’re basically replaceable components.

The Point of Invisibility

At one level, I’m asking a philosophical question here, but at the same time it’s a practical one: when is it, within an organisation, that individuals become lost, or invisible? The point at which people ‘vanish’ will depend on the organisation and the people in it. My direct superior, my Head of Department certainly knows a fair amount about my current projects, teaching, and other responsibilities because he’s dished most of them out. He also knows a fair amount about my life outside work. His boss, the Faculty Dean, knows a fair bit less, so the invisibility starts setting in there. The further removed you are, the less you can know. What is unusual at my current university is that the ‘boss of bosses’, my Vice Chancellor, knows me by name; this is because it’s a relatively small place but also because he makes it a point to know everyone who works for him. But he can’t know that much, so I’ve faded further into insignificance there, and I doubt that I enter his thoughts when he makes wide-reaching decisions.

I acknowledge that this fading and vanishing happens ‘beneath’ me, too. I have a pretty good sense, individually and collectively, of the 25 students I see twice a week. How well they do is partly down to me – I can explain, nudge, and advise as best I can, but it’s probably 20% me, 70% them, and 10% whatever else is going on around them. I’m also ‘responsible’ for about 120 students doing final year research projects, across three campuses. At various points this year I’ll probably teach about two thirds of them a few times, and I supervise some, but many of them I don’t know and never talk to. So quite a few of them are invisible to me, too, but I’ve designed the course, and work with other supervisors, in a way that I hope will help them. It does in the main, from experience, and we tweak and improve the course every year based on feedback. However, I have very little influence over the end result, but still have an agreed ‘target’ with my boss, which to get the cohort’s average over 60% (a B grade). This target is reasonable and achievable – it’s not far from where we’ve been in the past – but my job and promotion prospects are not on the line if it doesn’t happen if he knows that I’m doing what I can.


We have our own goals and those that are set out by our employers. These usually fit within the job description, which if you didn’t have, you’d have little idea of what to work on. Provided the goals are relevant, meaningful, and achievable – within reason – this is can work well. A target is often quite specific (i.e. measurable) and they’re common in most walks of life, from sports to sales. They can be useful when you have a lot of people in an organisation, as you have to ‘rationalise’ things – to ‘manage’ a system where people know what is expected of them. This is the alchemy of leadership, of steering a ship manned by hundreds or thousands of people towards where you want it to go. Some of this rationalisation comes about through the use of numbers, of working out how long things take, how much things cost, and this allows you see where changes are happening, where things need to be done.

But imagine what happens if those numbers are wrong. Let’s say, for example, that an academic is contracted to work something like 1500 hours a year (i.e. after holidays). You say that they’re timetabled to teach and supervise for 200 hours, and then give them an equal amount of time for additional teaching-related tasks (marking, class preparation etc) . What if the hours spent in front of students are right (after all, they’re timetabled), but the additional work is two to three times what you’ve allocated? Then consider the other things they’re expected to do, like research, writing papers and attending conferences, as well as being part of departmental and university committees. Your expectations of what they’re capable of then starts to fall apart, and it’s really in tatters if your calculations of non-teaching activities are out of whack. Either staff will underperform according to your expectations, or they end up working much longer hours. Maybe both.

The plot in the Tale of the Disappearing Academics, though, is about to become even hazier, and could lead to Death by Numbers. What if some the numbers you’re collecting and making decisions on are wrong in the sense that they don’t capture what they’re supposed to? Teaching hours are one thing, but there a great many other things that are counted and compared within universities. I’ve written for some time that a great many of them don’t actually measure the thing they claim to – they may be related, but often only weakly. How happy your students are does not necessarily mean that your teaching is good, the proportion of students who drop out may have nothing to do with your teaching quality, and  how many of international staff you employ does not, in itself make you a world-leading university, either. The list of these things is endless, and of course focusing on these can lead to huge amounts of wasted time, effort, and exhausted, frustrated (invisible) people.

Shooting in The Dark?

This question of vanishing people and dodgy data is not just about academics; we only make up about half of the staff in higher education, and we’d be lost without most of the other half. This just as much about anyone who makes organisational, national, or global policy. Bringing about change where large numbers of people are involved is almost unfeasibly complex but this makes it incredibly interesting, and it can be done. But a focus on misleading numbers and targets is hugely unhelpful, and they proliferate across education, health, the penal system, and so on. Counting things is often useful, but the numbers themselves may misrepresent the reality of people they impact. If we start to see the world solely through erroneous spreadsheets, then we’re asking people we can’t see – and don’t understand – to do things which we ourselves don’t understand, either. The outcomes are likely to range from pointless, to unhelpful, or even outright disastrous.

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How sexist are universities?


Is Higher Education a country for (old) men?

At first glance, you might think that universities, as spaces for promoting critical thinking and (often) social justice, are more immune from sexism than, say, the film industry. You might expect them to less homophobic than professional football, and less racist than the Metropolitan Police, and so on. A hunch says that they might be, but sadly the truth is less positive in terms of our record and culture of gender in-/equality, for one.

Academia: The Big Hope?

There’s a long (right wing) tradition of criticising academia as dressing towards the political left, favouring politics and policies that promote social equality. Universities are, not coincidentally, significant (but not the only) places where the perspectives of marginalised groups are investigated and highlighted through feminism, queer theory, and critical race theory. This leftish orientation is unsurprising given that a great deal of university activity is geared around trying to understand the word we live in – and that we are, as a result, by and large Brexit Remoaners, too. We’re a veritable hotbed of Political Correctness Gone Mad (PCGM). To add to this, there are now more female students in UK universities than male – 57% to 43%, to be precise. This bodes well for higher education, right? The reality of the situation, though, is far from rosy.

Degree ‘Choice’ and Gender

In terms of study options, there are long-standing differences in the gender balance on degree courses. In spite of there being more women than men at university, there are far more men in engineering, computing, physics and chemistry, and maths. In computing and engineering, it’s about 85% men. Then there are more women in health sciences, biology, social sciences, languages, education, and creative arts. In education, the ratio of women to men is 9:1. The only subject with an equal balance is, interestingly, business. There are also far fewer women taking postgraduate research degrees than men across the UK (except Northern Ireland, for some reason).

We might casually discount these figures as representing students’ natural ability and free choice: some subjects are simply more ‘girly’ or ‘boyish. But the figures indicate that degree choice is anything but free, and sociology helps us to understand that what is or isn’t girly/boyish is socially dictated. There is no biological reason for gender differences on any degrees – i.e. no evidence to support any real differences in ability or preference by gender (or race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, or social background, for that matter). This means that people’s choices are being steered by culture – that people from either gender are subtly or even explicitly encouraged towards (or discouraged from) certain subjects. The knock-on effect then spills into the labour market around jobs that are supposedly appropriate (or inappropriate) to particular genders. The numbers themselves also play a role here: imagine walking into a lecture theatre, careers fair, meeting, or training event, where nearly 90% of the people there are the other gender to you.

University Jobs and Gender

The gender differences in postgraduate research students, often the ticket into academic posts, provide an inkling as to how things pan out in the academic life for men and women. Of all academic staff in the UK, 55% are men. This is ‘better’ than some of the figures above, but still strange when you consider that there are more female than male students. What stops women staying on beyond their Bachelor or Master’s degree? When it comes to part-time staff, the balance is the other way around – more female academics than male. Maybe they’ve got childcare responsibilities, so don’t want to work full time – but why shouldn’t the men be doing that? I’ve written before that the funding for students in higher education favours those that don’t have family commitments, and this is one reason why mature students essentially vanished the last time tuition fees went up in 2012.

What you see when you get to the top end of academia is that only a quarter of all senior academic posts are held by women. This comes about in part because men are more likely to want/be able to forgo family commitments to further their careers, women are more likely to act collegially (rather than selfishly in their work), There is even evidence of a clear gender bias towards men in student assessments of teaching. The deck is therefore stacked in men’s advantage. It’s worth remembering here the national pay gap figures – last week marked the point in the calendar when women effectively started working for free for the rest of the year.


We can see that the gender imbalances in society are also present in higher education; universities don’t operate in a social vacuum, and the problems you see in society therefore crop up there, too. This is in spite of their PCGM and socially critical credentials. Why is the overall picture so bad?

A useful window into understanding this has come in the aftermath of the Weinstein case, which seems to have marked a shocking but significant step in the battle towards gender equality. Among the discussions and revelations around sexual harassment and discrimination in the media and social media, two hashtags have been particularly powerful in bringing issues to light: #notallmen and #metoo. #notallmen refers to the common refrain, from both men and women, that not all men are Harvey Weinsteins in practice (or in waiting). They’re not, but the problem is that sexual (and other) discriminations are built into everyday life, and are so pervasive that people don’t even know they’re there (or doing them). #metoo was used by Twitter users who’ve been subject to some kind of sexual harassment. Basically, it’s every woman you know (and some men) and this means that you really can generalise – i.e. it’s all men.

For example, academics sometimes have relationships or ‘liaisons’ with their students. Is this adults making free choices? Actually it’s incredibly problematic as the power – and therefore consent – dimension is in the academic’s favour, and there is a real opportunity to abuse that power. It’s this same power that can help them (and the wider community) silence any complaints of inappropriate behaviour. At what might seem the more banal level, men are more likely to be considered authoritative and/or knowledgeable, to agitate for pay raises, to be assertive on grant and promotion applications, to have a stronger physical presence, and (be allowed to) dominate conversations. Once we realise and accept this, then beyond the sledgehammer cases that shock most people, it’s more often a case of harassment and discrimination by a thousand cuts for women everywhere.

I’m struck in all of this by something I read recently, which claimed that most white people are racist, most heterosexuals are homophobic, and most men are sexist. The initial reaction to this is to disagree (#notallmen, right?), but as painful as it is to admit it, it’s true. The problem is that even the most well-meaning of us – academics as much as anyone – often don’t realise that we’re being this way. We need to wake up.

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